How Choosing Colorful Foods Can Promote Health

Taste the rainbow with Ayurveda-inspired eats

Editor’s note: This story was written before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Austin in full force, but even as we’re struggling with the new realities of shelter-in-place isolation, considering the types of food we’re eating remains important.

It’s definitely not as easy to procure ingredients on a whim, but our food community has rallied to ensure Austin has options. And perhaps this slower, more deliberate pace offers a chance to reflect – not only on the items on our own plates, but the items (or lack thereof) on the dinner tables of families everywhere. – Food Editor Jessi Cape

This is Texas, dang it. Burgers with airy brioche buns are icons of grilling culture. Barbecue and potato salad are the gateway to Nirvana. Tacos cradled in flour and corn are life. We know these truths to be self-evident, but in the wake of protein conquering the hearts of Texans everywhere, our plates have begun to pale and their hues homogenize.

Legions of salivating fans will attest to the undeniable satisfaction that the colors beige, brown, and tan can confer upon a meal. A muted background is the ideal backdrop over which flavors shine but it is also one that has the ability to lead to a health deficit in its most dedicated adherents. After all, while variety is literally the spice of life, it is also what allows the human body to absorb necessary nutrients and power all of its interior components. But these benefits come not from supplements and protein powders – they come from adding a splash of color onto the plate.

“It’s all information that our body uses,” explains Beth Barnett-Boebel, a registered dietitian at Path Nutrition, a locally owned dietitian clinic in South Austin. “These colors help our vitamins and minerals and other cells to do their job – to not have cancer cells replicate, to prevent disease and so on and so forth … They are essential to our health and without them there is disease.”

Western science is not the only discipline to identify color as an indicator of the health qualities of food. The ancient healing system of Ayurveda also points to color as a way to create balance in the body and promote health. Nisha Khanna, a Western-trained doctor who practices concurrently with Ayurvedic medicine at Functional Ayur­veda – a local clinic that provides holistic treatment for a variety of conditions including digestion – says that color is nature’s way of giving humans a visual cue that foods are full of the necessary nutrients that aid in the detoxification of the body.

Despite color being a very obvious effort to attract our attention and persuade us to dive into a lush bed of green lettuce topped with violet blueberries, vibrant pears, and bright yellow slices of lemon, somehow we Americans still regularly miss the memo.

“There are very little vegetables in [the American diet] and so people are not detoxifying well,” says Khanna. “I think color is life, I think color is what brings what we call Ayurveda, prana, into your body.”

When translated into Latin-based scientific terms, that prana life force is known as nutrigenomics. This particular discipline of nutrition, according to Barnett-Boebel, uses color and genetic mapping to recommend individual diets from a color-optimized perspective. Even for those who don’t have access to a completed genetic mapping of their DNA (that includes everyone here), there are still basic rules of thumb that are applicable for a wide range of people. “Blueberries, all the purple colors, and the dark leafy greens are going to be protective against cancers and general inflammation due to their antioxidants,” explains Barnett-Boebel. Purple, she says, is one of the most densely-packed nutrient packages in the vegetable kingdom, but it is also the least-­consumed color.

Similar to science, Ayurvedic wisdom says that plants with indigo and violet hues correspond to the upper throat and third eye chakras which contribute to coolness and can help reduce inflammation. Purple, however, is only one color of the rainbow. In both Western nutritional practices and Ayur­vedic medicine, six other colors remain and each vies for a place on the plate by touting its unique array of benefits.

“There are very little vegetables in [the American diet] and so people are not detoxifying well. I think color is life, I think color is what brings what we call Ayurveda, prana, into your body.” – Nisha Khanna

Orange is a color that is widely available and also not sufficiently consumed according to both experts. Fruits and vegetables of this hue are literally the vegetable equivalent of a spotlight highlighting the overflow of beta-carotene and curcuminoids, which have the ability to improve a host of health concerns. Curcuminoids are more commonly associated with the wonder ingredient turmeric and studies have shown that these compounds are vital to reducing inflammation, lowering anxiety and improving cognitive function. Beta-carotene, which is the precursor to vitamin A, is an essential building block for healthy hair, skin and muscles. “So when you eat orange foods, you’re nourishing your creativity, your sensuality and identification of gender,” says Khanna.

Green is another easy-to-access choice and is ideal for those looking to regulate heart health and balance hormones. (Unfor­tun­ately, the science quashes Popeye’s claim that spinach will make you stronger.) Instead of being a good source of just iron, ingredients like artichoke, asparagus, cucumber, lime, and avocado contain familiar-sounding vitamins like folate and compounds like tannins, but also less decipherable, but no less important, catechin and theaflavin antioxidant groups. Just like science has identified these compounds to be important in supporting heart health, Ayurveda too has linked the color green with the heart chakra. “The heart has a huge role in terms of being able to transform the physical energy into something more super-conscious,” says Khanna. The super-conscious or the crown chakra in Ayurveda is the self-actualization and insight that comes with having a balanced body where energy flows and circulates to nourish all the body’s nooks and crannies.

Eating your favorite color is all well and good, but when the colors of the rainbow merge on a plate is when the magic really happens. Some compounds, like curcuminoids, require a complementary ingredient like black pepper to activate them and make them bioavailable. Others, like broccoli, come in shades ranging from forest green to violet and provide the respective benefits of each color. You have to eat them all to activate all the health benefits.

That’s not to say that diners have to give up on their beloved tones of beige though.

Barnett-Boebel shares that she often enjoys a tan meal. “I’ll laugh at home because we’ll have like a tan meal, but I have made cauliflower, put little potatoes, and then chicken. But I have some variety of nutrients.” While fried options are probably best left for the occasional treat, those restrained shades of beige that are produced by nature are not off limits. In fact, they have their own set of functional benefits and have earned a place as the eighth color of the gastronomic rainbow.

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Nisha Khanna, Functional Ayurveda, Beth Barnett-Boebel, Path Nutrition

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